The Telegraph and Mail should stop buying DWP briefings hook, line and sinker

People leave housing benefit all the time, but the DWP managed to turn no news into good news

This morning the Telegraph and Mail ran stories claiming the the government’s benefit cap was already proving a success nine months before it comes into effect. According to the Telegraph

Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, is due to release figures which show that 1,700 people who would have been affected by the £26,000-a-year limit have taken up work since being warned about next year’s cap ...

"These figures show the benefit cap is already a success and is actively encouraging people back to work," Mr Duncan Smith said. "We need a welfare state that acts as a safety net and encourages people back to work." Mr Duncan Smith said that the figures would embarrass Labour, which had opposed the cap.

The statistics on which the stories were based were released by DWP this morning after the press stories had appeared, a form of sharp practice for which they have already been ticked off by the UK Statistics Authority. Even had Labour opposed the benefit cap (unfortunately, they didn’t), there would be little for them to worry about in today’s figures, which should rather be an embarrassment to the government and to the gullible journalists who faithfully wrote up what they had been briefed. In fact, the data shows roughly the opposite of what Mr Duncan Smith claims.

The figures are based on contact made by JobcentrePLus with 58,000 claimants who it was believed would be affected by the cap when it comes into effect, assuming they were still claiming at that point. Over the two month period since letters were sent to affected claimants warning them of the policy change, 1,700 are said to have moved into work. That’s 2.9 per cent of the total.

But the obvious question seems not to have been asked: how many would have moved into work in any case?

We can get an idea from data on benefit flows. These are a lot higher than is usually realised: even in this period of weak labour demand, 89 per cent of claims for Jobseekers' Allowance and 73 per cent of claims for Employment Support Allowance end within a year (pdf). But surely claimants receiving payments high enough to hit the cap spend longer on benefit? In fact, there’s no evidence for this, as the table shows.

Duration on benefit as percentage of caseload All out of work Subject to cap
Total:    
Up to six months 23 19
Six months up to one year 11 12
One year and up to two years 11 14
Two years and up to five years 16 23
Five years and over 40 32

 

Source: Nomis and Commons Hansard

 

The main contribution to benefit entitlement exceeding the cap level of £26,000 a year pro rata is high housing benefit payments. The average monthly off-flow rate from housing benefit over the last year was 2 per cent. If we take this as a proxy for people moving into employment, then over a two month period, other things being equal, we would have expected about 2,300 out of 58,000 people (4 per cent) to have taken up work. So an off-flow into employment of 1,700 is no indication whatsoever that the cap is affecting behaviour. The government is claiming this figure as a "success", when all it shows is that people receiving high housing benefit payments sometimes move into employment. Who knew?

I don’t think Duncan Smith is being disingenuous here. I fear it is much worse than that: he is genuinely self-deceived. If he thinks that an off-flow of this scale offers any evidence of the effect of policy, it is because he and his government are fixated on long-term benefit claimants, largely for ideological reasons.

Thus the fact that people actually leave benefits in very large numbers every month without being forced is routinely airbrushed out of the presentation of government policy, while ministers make ludicrous claims about "families where nobody has worked for three generations" (a misleading claim addressed by Lindsey Macmillan and Paul Gregg).

So I suspect that the ideological message has been so profoundly internalised that the Secretary of State simply cannot conceive that anyone on this level of benefits could move into work other than in response to the threat of compulsion from his department, so any off-flow must count as evidence that the policy is succeeding.

Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe Duncan Smith is being disingenuous after all and knew exactly what he was doing when he sold the Telegraph and Mail this particular pup. That might even be less disturbing than the thought that he really believes this stuff.

A row of houses in Bath, England. Photograph: Getty Images

Declan Gaffney is a policy consultant specialising in social security, labour markets and equality. He blogs at l'Art Social

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
Show Hide image

Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left